Its Population Falling,
Russia Beckons Its Children Home

Some Old Believers repatriated from Uruguay to Russian Far East

New York Times — March 21, 2009

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Vasily Reutov had never set foot in Russia until a few months ago, but the moment he did, he knew he had finally made it home.

Vasily Reutov, left, and his brother-in-law, Aleksei Kilin, are resettling in Russia, lured to their ancestral homeland by a program that is helping them move.

His ancestors, members of an ascetic offshoot of Russian Orthodoxy known as Old Believers, fled this region in the 1920s after the Communist Party violently suppressed religion. They settled in cloistered villages in South America that they turned into Little Russians, as if by preserving the ways of the past, they would somehow, someday, be able to return.

Now, with Russia itself beckoning and sturdier than before, that time has come.

The government is trying to head off the country’s severe population decline by luring back Russians who live abroad as well as their descendants. Mr. Reutov and several dozen other members of his religious community from Uruguay have become among the most striking examples of this policy.

Moscow has spent $300 million in the past two years to get the repatriation program started, and officials estimated that more than 25 million people were eligible, many of them ethnic Russians who found themselves living in former Soviet republics after the Soviet collapse in 1991.

But the government is not limiting itself to Russia’s neighbors, sending emissaries around the world to sell the program. One even went to Brazil last month to meet with residents of several countries who, like Mr. Reutov, are Old Believers, whose followers have some similarities in lifestyle to the Amish. Diaspora Old Believer communities exist worldwide, including in Alaska and Oregon.

Mr. Reutov, 36, was not at the meeting in Brazil because he was already here, having decided to enroll in the program and move with his wife and five children from Uruguay. Others from two villages there are to follow soon, he said.

Their story is one of the last unfinished chapters of the Russian Revolution, and it speaks to the changes in Russia in the post-Soviet era. Even with the global financial crisis, Russia is more stable and prosperous than at any other time in its history, and Mr. Reutov said that only now was his community confident enough in the country’s future.

And so they are ready to uproot themselves and begin anew, back where it all began — in this windswept coastal area in Russia’s Far East.

“We have always felt like we belonged to Russia,” Mr. Reutov said. “We are Russian, and we need to be here.”

Yet their return also points to Russia’s disquieting population drop. The United Nations predicts that the country will fall to 116 million people by 2050, from 141 million now, an 18 percent decline, largely because of a low birthrate and poor health habits. (The government is trying to increase the birthrate by paying families to have more children.)

So far, only 10,300 people have moved back under the government repatriation program, which has faced criticism that it is overly bureaucratic and unpersuasive. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the program needed time to generate interest, and officials said they hoped that many more would soon take advantage of relocation and employment assistance, which can amount to several thousand dollars a person.

It is unclear how the financial crisis will affect the program’s appeal. While Russia has been hit hard, many of its neighbors are faring even worse, so people might choose to try their luck here. On the other hand, some might be deterred because they cannot find jobs in Russia, particularly in its hard-hit Far East.

Vladimir G. Pozdorovkin, a Foreign Ministry official who oversees the program, has visited several countries in the past year to promote it, including Germany and Egypt. At the meeting in Brazil last month, he said, he was peppered with questions from Old Believers about the quality of life and the business climate in Russia.

“Their desire to return to the historic homeland is there,” Mr. Pozdorovkin said. “Their fathers and grandfathers always told them that they had to return to Russia. But to what Russia, what conditions are there — they want to find that out beforehand.”

After several weeks roaming the Vladivostok region, Mr. Reutov said he was convinced. He and his brother-in-law, Aleksei Kilin, 26, have been looking for a relatively isolated area where they can set up a farm.

They located distant relatives and went to the villages of their forebears, who escaped in the 1920s to Harbin, a major city in China’s northeast that was a center for Russian refugees, before ending up in South America.

Reutov said he was pleased with the help that he had received from regional officials, who seem equally pleased that he is returning. Russia’s vast and sparsely inhabited Far East has fallen in population to six million, from eight million in 1991. Tens of millions of Chinese are just over the border, but Russia does not want to allow them in.

The program is not open to just any descendants of Russians. In general, applicants must speak Russian and be comfortable with the country’s society and culture.

Mr. Reutov and Mr. Kilin were thus ideal. Russian is their first language — Mr. Kilin said he barely spoke Spanish — and they easily blended in here. Only their beards and homemade white dress shirts, both characteristic of Old Believers, attracted attention.

Still, not all Old Believer communities are as enthusiastic. The Rev. Nikolai Yakunin, a priest who leads one in Nikolaevsk, Alaska, said he was often asked whether he yearned to live in Russia.

“We are not moving back,” he said. “They are still Communists there, even if they call themselves democrats.” Yet, Father Yakunin conceded he was worried that young people in his community were quickly assimilating, failing to learn Russian and losing cultural ties.

Mr. Reutov had lived in the United States for a time before deciding to return to South America, in part because he, too, was concerned about his children.

“It is really hard to keep up the traditions,” Mr. Reutov said. “The young people in the communities in the United States don’t speak Russian at all. And for us, that is not acceptable.”

He said some people in their villages in Uruguay and Brazil considered returning to Russia in the 1980s and 1990s but concluded that the country was too volatile. Now, he and his brother-in-law are reporting more positive impressions to family and friends in South America.

“They are all now calling me and asking me how it is,” he said. “They are saying, ‘If you can find a place for us, we are ready to move.’ ”

Related story: "Russia: Repatriation Plan Appeals To Few Ethnic Russians:   The first year of an extended program to repatriate ethnic Russians living abroad has failed to produce the wave of immigrants that proponents touted ahead of its approval" —  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 17, 2008.
'Russian Amish': Children of the schism (Russia Today TV news documentary, 26 minutes) Shows village of modern starovery who moved from South America to Far East, Amur province, Russia. They may be following an old prophecy that the promised land of the Apocalypse is in the East, among forests and waterfalls.

More photos from Google images, and 
Letters to the Editor:

It amazes me how many of us who are not physically in today's Russia, have never been to Russia, at least in the last 15 years and whose only knowledge of Russia has been molded by our western press can make such profound and derogatory statements about it as a place to live.

I once spent a week on business in the city of Novosibirsk. Most Americans have never heard of it yet it is the third largest city in Russia with a population of over 1.4 million. It has subways for public transport, industry, parks and most important, a proud and industrious population. People were generally friendly but understandably were sometimes hesitant when dealing with a person who spoke no Russian. Most striking of all to me was the massive rebuilding of it’s churches since the fall of Communism.

Although it is a city I would not want to live in, it is easy to understand why people with cultural, traditional and familial ties would consider it as much as they would any one of a number of places outside of their homeland. They are already or more easily assimilated. The fact that the country is encouraging them to return, with their foreign influences and experiences is itself an indicator of the massive change that continues to occur in Russia.

My own experience made me conclude that what little we as Americans really know of Russia is inaccurate, largely influenced by past fears and not accurately reported by our own press.

— Bruce Olson, Houston, Texas

The Old Believers were tortured from the 17th through early 20th centuries and it was during that period that they escaped to Eastern Siberia, then Alaska and Canada. There are many categories of Old Believers (or Raskolniki) be they Popovscy or Bezpopovscy, etc. and this article fails to describe the group from Uruguay. To describe them as similar to Amish is similar to saying that break dancing is similar to Paul Taylor in that both do not use pointed shoes.

However, the most important factor is that the Staro Viery have always been considered anathema by the Orthodox Church. In light of the fact that only faiths which are officially recognized by Moscow as a "Traditional Religion" can legally function in Russia, and since the Orthodox Church has asked Moscow to delist the Old Believers from that group, their return to Russia places them at risk of arrest.

I wonder why the author of the article did not attempt to present this issue.

— jasna, New York NY


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